Blair offers little on how 'humanitarian pauses' in Israel-Hamas war would work

OTTAWA — The federal government supports humanitarian pauses in the Israel-Hamas conflict to clear a path for critical aid to get to civilians in the Gaza Strip, but isn't quite sure yet how that would work, Defence Minister Bill Blair said Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Canada joined international partners including the United States and France in calling for a temporary halt to fighting as the humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory gets worse.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said before question period on Wednesday that a humanitarian pause would have three purposes.

Speaking in French, he said that it would allow aid to flow, it would allow hostages to be released and it would allow the exit of foreign nationals who have been unable to leave Gaza since the latest conflict began.

It differs from a ceasefire, which would require a long-term halt to the fighting, and which Canada does not support.

Israel has the right to defend itself, Trudeau repeated.

Many Israel supporters, including the United States, have indicated that a ceasefire would disproportionately benefit Hamas, arguing the group would not abide by its terms. Canada has labelled the group a terrorist organization since 2002.

Blair had said on Tuesday that Hamas cannot be trusted to respect international law or follow any ceasefire agreement. He did not clarify on Wednesday whether a humanitarian pause could work if Hamas ignored it.

"You're asking me to speculate on something, and frankly, we believe that it's important to be able to get humanitarian aid to those people who desperately need it," he told reporters on Parliament Hill.

"We support that there should be a pause. How that would actually be effective is to be determined, but we believe that it's important that that aid get to the people who desperately need it."

The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees has said it needs to curtail its relief operations in Gaza amid crushing Israeli airstrikes and a lack of fuel to operate.

Fighting between Israel and Hamas has intensified in recent days, with the Israeli military firing several hundred rockets into Gaza, and Hamas firing back with rockets aimed at Tel Aviv and Beersheba. Militants also launched an attempted ground assault in the seaside Israeli city of Ashkelon.

The Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza says that more than 6,500 Palestinians have been killed since the conflict began. That figure includes those said to have died in an explosion at a hospital last week, but that toll is disputed.

More than two million people live in Gaza, a strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea roughly the same size as Montreal.

The strip has been blockaded by both Israel and Egypt since Hamas took control in 2007, but in the last three weeks, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated rapidly as almost all supply routes were closed off.

Small convoys bringing food, water and medical supplies have been allowed in since last weekend, but Israel is not allowing fuel shipments, believing that Hamas will intercept them.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the aid delivered so far a mere drop "in an ocean of need."

More than one million people have been displaced in Gaza since Israel began a barrage of rocket fire in an attempt to take out Hamas, which has long espoused violence as a way to liberate occupied Palestinian territories. Israel withdrew its military and settlements from Gaza in 2005, but Canada considers the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be occupied territories.

Hamas militants staged surprise attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, including on a music festival and on homes in small agricultural co-operatives. The attacks killed 1,400 people, injured more than 4,500 and resulted in some 222 people being taken hostage.

Israel has said that about 30 of the hostages are children, including one as young as nine months old. Nearly three dozen teddy bears wearing blindfolds and dabbed with fake blood were set up around a fountain in Tel Aviv to draw attention to the child hostages. Hamas has released four hostages, but none of them were children.

While Trudeau said that a pause in fighting could allow for the release of hostages, he did not suggest that enacting a pause was contingent on their release.

Government House leader Karina Gould said earlier on Wednesday that the two things are not tied together.

"We very much will continue to negotiate for the release of hostages," she said.

"However, we also recognize that there are a lot of people in Gaza right now who need humanitarian assistance, and so I don't think we need to make this one or the other."

The Conservatives have been against any ceasefire, but foreign-affairs critic Michael Chong issued a statement on Tuesday supporting the government's push for humanitarian pauses.

Manitoba Conservative MP Marty Morantz, however, said on Wednesday that while the party supports humanitarian aid, a pause can't happen without the release of hostages.

"Certainly at some point, a pause might be a good idea, but not until all the hostages are released," he said.

"Hamas has it within their power to release all the hostages today. If they really cared about the state of the Palestinian people, they would release those hostages and make sure that humanitarian aid flows."

The New Democrats have been calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and on Wednesday evening they confirmed that remains the case.

"The call for humanitarian pauses isn't good enough. It's a temporary pause to get aid in — and then bombings resume and more innocent civilians die," NDP MP Heather McPherson, the foreign-affairs critics, wrote in a statement.

She said her party wants to see "a full ceasefire," including the safe return of hostages, and noted the number of children who have died in the latest war.
"This violence must end and perpetrators must be held accountable for violations of international law. The international community — including Canada — has to be honest about the hard work that lies ahead," she said.

"The solution to this crisis is political. There is no possible military solution here. Civilians are dying on a massive scale and this is not how to bring security to Israelis and Palestinians."

Last week, nearly two dozen Liberal MPs signed a letter, along with several NDP MPs and both Green Party MPs, asking Trudeau to call for a formal ceasefire to end the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. On Wednesday, most of those Liberals indicated that a humanitarian pause was a good start.

Liberal MP Arielle Kayabaga, who signed the letter, said she still thinks a full ceasefire is necessary.

"I welcome the decision to push forward a humanitarian pause, but I still believe we need to do everything and exhaust everything we have to make sure we can save as many civilian lives as possible," said Kayabaga, who represents a riding in London, Ont.

Manitoba Liberal Ben Carr said he does not support a ceasefire, but if a humanitarian pause can help keep people alive, it is a good option.

Carr acknowledged there are divisions in the Liberal caucus about how to respond to the Israel-Hamas conflict, but said they reflect the same divisions in Canada as a whole.

"We are as diverse as the country itself," Carr said.

The federal government says about 400 people with a connection to Canada, including citizens, permanent residents and close relatives, have registered as being in Gaza.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said on Wednesday that the government had helped 12 more Canadians and their family members leave the West Bank, bringing the total number to 45.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Mia Rabson and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press